By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
Of all the different labels that have been glowingly affixed to Hamsa Lila's sound, none fits better than "healing music." Melding the ancient forms of Morocco's Gnawa music with a timeless blend of trance-y chants, brass and woodwind instruments, and percussion, Hamsa Lila delivers mesmerizing art that works like an energizing salve, lifting tired hearts and mending wounded souls. Featuring the diverse talents of Vir McCoy, Brett Jacobson, MJ Greenmountain, Schroeder, Sarita Pockell, Andrea Vecchione, Nikila Badua, and Timi, the group can go from reverent to riotously jubilant in the space of a single jam. The ensemble has also become known for its adventuresome collaborations with dazzling players from around the world. Recent guests have included members of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, Spearhead, and the Hassan Hakmoun Band. Whether alone or with illustrious visitors, Hamsa Lila has the same effect on the audience. Bystanders caught up in the group's rhythmic call-and-response chants -- comprised of Arab, African, and Native American chants mixed with unique texts -- can't help but dance. Despite the band's short life (it played its first show in May 2001), Hamsa Lila has already managed to weave its whirling, hypnotic spell at gigs throughout the western U.S. In the Gnawa language, lila refers to a music-infused ritual where participants reach a state of purification and healing, making Hamsa Lila the perfect name for a group dedicated to providing a musical cure for the world's ailments.
It's easy to lose oneself in the folds of Henri-Pierre Koubaka's African music. One of the Bay Area's most accomplished practitioners of the Mandingo style, Koubaka is a natural performer, able to mesmerize and energize crowds with a single strum on his acoustic guitar. A favorite of audiences at the Freight & Salvage and Ashkenaz clubs in Berkeley, Koubaka takes listeners on an aural journey to the West African countries of Senegal, Mali, Guinea, and Congo every time he plays. Perhaps best known to local fans for his radio shows on KALW-FM (91.7) and KPFA-FM (94.1), Koubaka spent years working as a DJ and musician in Dakar before moving to San Francisco. Now, when not performing solo, Koubaka leads the celebrated group Ksaumai Bare (which means "Peace in Abundance"). The band features percussionist Babou Sagna, choreographer Marietou Camara, guitarist Ze Manel, and guitarist/ balafonist Mohamed Kouyate. The ensemble's melodies are a complex blend of ancient and contemporary song, which has led to gigs opening for big-name artists such as Oliver Mtukudzi, Angelique Kidjo, Habib Koite, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens. Koubaka's unforgettable presentation of secular and spiritual music has also earned him invitations to perform at a number of festivals, including the Pleasant Hill Smash Hits Festival and the San Jose Jazz Festival.
It's a well-known fact in the salsa world that wherever Orquesta Charanson bandleader Anthony Blea goes, dancing erupts. The extremely talented violinist -- and pied piper of Charanga music -- has been immersed in his craft since picking up his instrument at the age of 8. Just three years later, Blea was awarded a full scholarship to study at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. His next move was to New York City, where he continued his rigorous education at the Manhattan School of Music. From all this training, you might expect a stuffy classical player. But Blea's love of Charanga pushed him away from Mozart and Beethoven, and toward the slinky, shimmying rhythms of Brazil, Cuba, and Africa. While in New York, Blea had the opportunity to sit in with such giants as Israel "Cachao" Lopez, Orquesta Broadway, Charanga America, Charanga '76, and Tipica '73. Fortunately, Blea left the Big Apple for the more temperate climate of the Bay Area, where he founded Orquesta Charanson. The group lets Blea follow in the footsteps of the legends he got to know while living and playing in New York, offering lively Afro-Cuban originals and a host of old favorites. Thousands of salsa aficionados across the Bay Area can attest to Orquesta Charanson's renown. In fact, recent gigs have reportedly been so packed that late-arrivers had to wait hours to get a spot on the dance floor!
If Jenna Mammina had decided in 1986 to move to New York instead of San Francisco, the Michigan native might well be taking the country by storm, much like Norah Jones is with her hit "Don't Know Why." As it is, the sultry, husky-voiced Mammina has slowly and steadily carved out a niche for herself in the national jazz singer scene, with a reputation for making any song she interprets -- from Led Zeppelin to Tom Waits to classic Duke Ellington -- both convincingly passionate and thoroughly her own. And while it's a stretch to say that Mammina is substance to Jones' style, there's no mistaking the greater depth and maturity in her voice. On her new album, Meant to Be, Mammina transforms Steely Dan's "Dirty Work" into a poignant song of loneliness and betrayal, somehow managing to convey the sexual undertones without sacrificing any of her dignity. Later on, she tackles the Waits number "Hope That I Don't Fall in Love With You," bringing out the song's pathos and emotion while avoiding tripping on its cleverness. As with most of the covers on the CD, Mammina owns the emotion so thoroughly that you may not realize the song isn't hers.